When the British formed the basis of their empire in the 1600s by acquiring territories in India and North America, they already had many centuries’ experience of foreign involvement. One of the most remarkable aspects of the force that reshaped Eurasia 1,000 years earlier is that there was no prelude: the Arab conquests, and the Islamic empire that they created, came out of nowhere. By the time of the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 most of the tribes of the Arabian peninsula had united under the banner of Islam, some out of faith, others from expediency. But few people outside Arabia knew who Muslims were or worried about the threat they might pose.
There were two significant forces in this part of the 7th-century world: the Byzantines in Constantinople and the Persians on the Tigris river at Ctesiphon, south of Baghdad. These were, as one contemporary chronicler called them, the ‘two eyes of the world’. Imagine the shock just four years after Mohammed’s death when some 20,000 Arab fighters destroyed a Byzantine army of almost ten times their number near the sea of Galilee. By the end of 636, the holy city of Jerusalem was besieged. Long sacred to Jews and Christians, Jerusalem was also revered by Muslims because of the Prophet’s miraculous night journey; it was towards Jerusalem, not Mecca, that early Muslims prayed. In the spring of 637, the Patriarch Sophronius, whose home city of Damascus had already fallen to Arab arms, attempted to stall the inevitable by insisting he would only hand over the keys of Jerusalem to the caliph. More surprise, then, when the caliph Umar duly arrived on a camel, simply dressed. Even more when he refused to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — in spite of Jesus being a prophet in Islam — because he knew that if he did so, his followers would turn the church into a mosque. Instead, he and his successors built the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, the scene of current conflict. There were yet more surprises to come.
The Arab armies that moved out of their harsh homelands and into the Fertile Crescent had two advantages over their adversaries, and these, as Justin Marozzi makes clear in his lively narrative, were the keys to their success. Unlike their Byzantine, Persian or Egyptian adversaries, Muslim fighters were driven by more than the desire to do battle, to loot, to win glory or save their necks. Theirs was a holy fight, a jihad, and if they fell in battle, the Prophet had assured them, they would find a rapturous welcome as martyrs in heaven.
The Arabs also had history on their side, for they emerged just as the two old eyes of the world had exhausted each other in a protracted war for dominion over the Fertile Crescent. Arab fighters might have been unskilled in warfare, but they were fresh; many of them were used to hardship, they were inspired by religious fervour and they were led by some extremely capable generals. Among the leaders were Khalid ibn Walid, whom the Prophet had called the Sword of Islam, and Uqba ibn Nafi al Fihri, who brought the Prophet’s message to North Africa with such missionary zeal that he stopped only after he had ridden his horse into the Atlantic surf somewhere beyond Tangier.
The Arab Conquests provides an excellent prelude to Marozzi’s previous two books, Baghdad and Islamic Empires, although it is briefer and has a tighter time frame. Starting with the first conquest at Badr, near the Arabian coast, where Mohammed led a small force against his own Qurayshi tribespeople in 624, Marozzi plots the military progress, and the politics behind it, from the first international victories after the Prophet’s death, to the 730s. By then, the caliph’s armies had dominion over the former Persian empire as far as what is now Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, and across North Africa from Egypt to Morocco and up through Spain and Portugal, where Al Andalus, the Muslim kingdom in Iberia, would become a cultural beacon.
The end also comes as something of a surprise — half way up through France, in 732, where Charles, duke and prince of the Franks, ended Arab ambitions in the north and earned himself the title of Martel, or Hammer. Eighteen years later at Talas, on what is now the Kazakh–Kyrgyz border, a Tang Chinese army marked the easternmost limit of Arab achievements.
The story of their remarkable 120 years of expansion has been often and well told by writers from Edward Gibbon to Hugh Kennedy and Barnaby Rogerson. Marozzi’s beautifully illustrated volume sits well beside them as a shorter, lighter overview of a movement that was, as he claims, ‘the midwife for the birth of a glorious new civilisation’ that was to change the world